On Ethics Codes

What's wrong with "someone will get after you" if you mess up?



The Metropolitan Charter Commission and Rebuild Government have come up with an ethics survey. You can fill it out at their website rebuildgovernment.org. There are nine questions, and it only takes a few minutes.

"Citizens have told us at Rebuild Government that iron-clad ethics rules are a priority for them," the website says.

There is also an article by the group's consultant, Stephen Goldsmith, that points out some of the problems with ethics rules. Goldsmith, a lawyer and the former mayor of Indianapolis, writes: "From my experience, the weakness in the ethics compliance systems in local government is not so much the actual ethics codes but the lack of concern for administration and enforcement." In other words, the codes are toothless. A review of recent examples in Memphis and Shelby County bears this out.

Recall provisions? In the real world of Memphis politics, it simply doesn't happen. Even censure, applied most recently to council member Janis Fullilove in 2008 for driving violations, is a rare step. Attempts to censure former council members Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford Sr. after they were arrested on bribery charges in 2006 failed. An effort by a Shelby County commissioner to censure some county officials failed earlier this year. Censure can be a political weapon or it can be a way to subvert a criminal investigation by imposing "punishment lite."

Ethics training? The undercover tapes in the Tennessee Waltz investigation revealed a group of political opportunists who were perfectly aware of the rules but didn't obey them. The elected or appointed official who gets in trouble typically has a resume studded with honors and is a graduate of one or more local leadership training groups.

An ethics commission? On the secret Tennessee Waltz tapes, the only thing that gives Roscoe Dixon pause is the possibility of a federal investigation. The only thing that gives John Ford pause is the possibility that he might be talking to an FBI informant. Paul Stanley was caught on tape or else he would still be a state lawmaker. Fear is the best cop.

How about an ethics commission beefed up with retired judges and retired elected officials? The presumption seems to be that there are universally revered wise men and women out there who would make good ethics cops. There are two problems with this. One, most judges and elected officials have political histories, and, two, investigations take time and manpower.

Expand the code to boards and commissions? Fine, but there are more than 75 of them. Ambitious men and women with professional skills are drawn to powerful positions and to each other. Good luck sorting out nepotism and conflicts.

Sunshine laws? Disclosure can be a powerful deterrent. Journalists like me owe a debt to the reporters, editors, and state lawmakers who enacted sunshine laws in the 1970s. The current ones are adequate but need to be updated for the Internet world and e-mail accounts.

Tougher disclosure requirements that would uncover conflicts of interest? Well, consider that when he was county mayor, A C Wharton, a highly competent attorney, appointed his old friend Roscoe Dixon, a veteran state lawmaker, as his assistant chief administrative officer. Wharton didn't know it, but Dixon was a target of the Tennessee Waltz sting and within a year he would be convicted of crimes that would send him to prison for five years. None of this would or could be disclosed on a questionnaire.

When it comes to ethics, we see what we want to see. In his article, Goldsmith notes the past "transgressions in Memphis which negatively impact the region's reputation" and applauds Wharton "for his hard work in setting a high ethical bar in an effort to regain public trust." But it's not that simple. Wharton is no stranger to ethical gray areas. He had an aide take his car through inspection. His daughter-in-law is general counsel for the Med. He hired Dixon. He ran for one public job while holding another one. One of his directors, Robert Lipscomb, has two jobs and gets two salaries.

A Memphis lawyer named Hal Gerber once said the benefit of federal prosecutors was that "People must know there is somebody there not afraid to get after their ass if they do something wrong."

Somebody will get after your ass if you do something wrong. If in doubt, don't do it. That's 17 words. For an ethics policy for local government, we could do worse.

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